Self publishing

Self publishing provides an outlet for illustrators to retain full creative freedom through authoring their own work, both visual and/or written. This is an area that I have researched in-depth to create books printed by Blurb for my Book Design and Landscape Photography courses. See my blogs:


edited from my book design post on Fanzines and my own Zine

Fanzines are magazines for fans. Many illustrators have contributed to fanzines as well as used this format to present their own ideas and examples of work. Fanzines existed in one form or other since the 1930s but really became widespread as the punk subcultural DIY response to mainstream print.era. ‘Fanzine’ was abbreviated to ‘zine’ in 1970s.

  • Readership were super-niche interest groups and cultural underground. They were part of
  • Distribution:  small quantities on an irregular basis distributed by hand and word of mouth or via independent music or book stores or through zine fairs and symposia. Different titles would spring up for a few editions then disappear.
  • Format: usually small A5-A6 to easily fit in the hand, but sometimes oversized broadsheets.
  • Production: Created by a single producer as both author and designer – no censorship or corporate strategy.
  • Subject matter political, humorous, poetic, underground music not necessarily represented in more conventional print.
  • Style Lively Do it yourself style uninhibited by design conventions. Often chaotically lively layout.
  • Cheap and designed to be ephemeral  : some were commercially printed but many were printed using photocopiers, stencil and other ‘hands-on’ processes. Sometimes they were more 3-dimensional and incorporated recycled objects or materials.
  • Materials different coloured papers, crayons, felt-tip markers, Ribbons, stickers. Collages photos hand-drawn illustrations. often made with very basic tools: scissors, glue.
  • Typography handwritten or typewritten or using rub-down lettering.

“Doing a fanzine in the Noughties is all about the process of making it, and having that direct impact on an individual, who will (hopefully) cherish the object you’ve lavished effort on.”

Self-published comics

Mainstream comics are either printed in their own right or live within larger publications and newspapers. See discussion of comics and graphic novels from Part 3 of this course:

Sequential illustration

But  many comic artists tarted out by self-publishing.

  • Robert Crumb developed his comics through underground publications as part of the 1960s counterculture.
  • Viz, the British high street adult comic, started life in a bedroom in Newcastle upon Tyne, produced by brothers Chris and Simon Donald with friend Jim Brownlow. This low risk approach meant that Viz was able to find an audience before it began to grow as a commercial enterprise.
  • Gary Panter Illustrator and artist from the early punk scene in America. He produced his own comics before rising to prominence illustrating record sleeves.
Artists’ books

Artists’ books are well-made, limited edition publications that are usually based on one thematic idea and are presented as pieces of art in their own right. Unlike fanzines and comics, artist’s books place more emphasis on the form of the book, either in terms of the book’s format and how it relates to the content or simply through the quality of the materials used. Artists’ books can be printed and hand-bound or be completely hand-made.

See Johanna Drucker The Century of Artists Books 2004

Digital publishing

Developments in on-line publishing potentially offer illustrators new and cheaper ways to publish and present their work tailored to specific audiences. This means there’s less of an imperative to compromise and it’s easier to take risks. There are a number of ways in which illustrators can use on-line publishing:

  • portfolios within the content of websites – setting up one’s own e-commerce sites through sites like SMUGMUG (see my own photography and art website that I intend to develop as a professional site) and promotion of images.  There are also many on-line networks like Behance, Pinterest and artist e-commerce sites like Etsy and others.
  • self-contained downloadable content presented as pdfs (downloadable documents which can be read using a variety of technology) or as interactive content on websites using software like Adobe InDesign’s interactive features. An issue here is keeping up-to-date with interactive formats that can be cross-platform as formats are continually shifting (something I need to update my research on) and both sizes and file types differ between for example Kindle, Apple and Amazon.
  • on-line publishing by Blurb, Apple and Amazon and others where users upload their book content and viewers can access it freely on-line or pay for a one-off paper copy to be printed and posted to them. Here the publisher takes care of the formatting from pdf and generally offers a number of options.

However the roles for illustrators in traditional book publishing like book covers, magazine articles and other forms of editorial illustration may decline as digital bookshops function through search engines and tagged words rather than through visually eye-catching material. 

Thinking about self-publishing

Self-publishing your ideas can take many forms. Self-publishing content doesn’t have to be a great opus, nor does it have to compete at the
highest level. Some of the most entertaining examples of self-published work are based on very simple ideas, such as Mark Pawson’s ‘Die-Cut Plug Wiring Diagram Book’.

Some of my conclusions and issues for further work

Some of conclusions so far from self-publishing projects in other courses are that although self-publishing offers creative freedom, as well as a very good creative product it requires:

  • a very sound knowledge of the market: – how much different intended readerships might be prepared to pay for different types of product from cheap small publications to larger glossy ones, the competition from others with similar ideas, and advertising and promotion outlets
  • printing processes: types of paper, colour ranges, formats etc. Although my conclusion was that Blurb was the most cost-effective for the UK if a certain volume was produced and I could take advantage of the frequent cut cost offers, it would still be difficult to make things viable.

TO DO: Do some research into self-published comics, graphic novels, artist books or fanzines. Visit your local bookstore or find examples online. Find examples of self-publishing you find interesting or entertaining. Think about the form of this work. How has it been produced and what materials are used? Can you find examples of inventive use of paper, binding, folding or printing?
As a starting point you may want to access artists’ books in the V&A collection:

See also:

Part 5: Working to a Brief